I’ve been working on a novel to be told over the course of ten years, from 2021 to 2030, and to be set in 365 different locations in the world. The entire world of Girar deals with the universal difficulties that differences of opinion on homosexuality, religion, and cultural values can often cause. Over the course of multiple volumes, in book and short story form, Girar will gyrate into 365 locales over the space of ten years, creating a sampling of the major cultural nations of our world. The first book of this weltgeist will be Girar: Chaitra 2078, Who We Are. The book charts Mother and Father’s reaction to Son’s unexpected return home. It starts in Mysore, on the day of Ugadi, the Kannadiga New Year, and ends in a village in Kasaragod, my father’s native place, while the narrative travels to 28 other countries in between.
Luofengcun, Hainan, China
What assured Father that there were too many people his house at such a late hour was not the noise of the neighbours clucking at each other in Hlai, nor the motorbikes parked in the potholes outside; it was the chubby boy with porcupine-bristled hair, sitting on the porch on Mother’s makeshift chair, which she used for reaching things from high shelves.
“Hey little boy, what are you doing here?” Father frowned.
The boy was so lost in his phone he did not even notice that the owner of the house was addressing him. Father asked a few more questions, but there was no answer. He was the only boy of that size in this part of the village, so Father easily surmised that he was the son of the neighbours who owned the wine shop. They barely talked to Mother except for when they wanted her to invest in their business schemes.
“Yes, yes, I agree, Sanya is getting too expensive. My cousin wants to buy an apartment, and he simply can’t afford it…”
“Can you send it to me on WeChat Pay? I don’t have enough cash…”
“Yes, yes… it is very nice… I’ve also been there…”
So random were the neighbours that Mother had invited over that Father could hear them from his position on the porch but could not make out who they were from their voices. The question was why they had to be there in the first place, considering Father had just come home from a shift at the hospital and was exhausted. The chickens were sleeping in the shrine next to their flimsy house, by the statue of Sun Wukong and the oolong tea offering Mother had most likely made earlier today. Father, in a moment of spite, wanted to kick them awake. It had been a rough day at the hospital, and it had been difficult for Father because he knew that tomorrow Son would leave quarantine and fly from Beijing to Sanya. He had gotten so lost imagining Son’s return that in the middle of one of his diagnoses he started staring out the window, directly into the sun, as if he were waiting, just waiting, for the rays to blind him.
Father approached the shrine and kicked at the ground. The chickens clucked and clacked, startling the boy on the porch, who finally realised there was another person outside and shouted to his parents that something was going on.
“Look, your husband is back,” one of the neighbours shouted, alerting a good ten others that Father was acting like a madman outside his house. One by one they looked at him and shouted, “Good evening! How was your day? Hello! Have you eaten?” Almost all of them came to shake his hand and to talk. He wanted to tell them not to touch his hand as he had just left the hospital. Some of them were so close he could smell the cigarette smoke on their clothes.
He led them back into the house. They took their seats on the wooden benches lining the wall. There were so many people that Mother had to stand, and so did Father, despite having spent the day on his feet. He stood by the television, on the opposite side of the raised table, on which all of the idols, from Sun Wukong to Guanyin, from Yuhuang Dadi to Long Wang, were either seated in reverence or striking a flamboyant pose. They took up so much of the space that Father felt he was almost in audience with them, and not his neighbours. The incenses were brimming with smoke, as if recently lit, and the pears that had been offered to the idols had a freshly washed glow. He wondered whether Mother and these neighbours had prayed together.
One of the neighbours was sharing a story about her son and the exorbitant amount of money he was making through his work in Guangzhou. It deepened the craters of Father’s eyes. He peered into the kitchen, where the wooden bedstand was being used to stow the rice cooker, a vat of oil, and some dishes. He imagined the only items in his bedroom—the straw mats, the pillows—and it made him sleepy.
“Hey, hey! Village doctor, don’t doze off.” Father didn’t recognise the voice, but when he opened his eyes all of the neighbours were staring at him with wide chuckling eyes.
“Leave him be,” said one of the others. “Poor guy. He must be tired.”
“Working is hard, yes.” Father recognised the gruff, nicotine-thinned voice as that of the man who worked in the paddy fields. Despite his small frame, he had the biggest muscles of the men gathered in Father’s living room. They locked eyes. He added, “So many patients. So much disease. Too much.”
One of the wives interjected. “Now, now, come on. This is not important. We’re here for another reason.” She approached Father and grabbed his arm. “You must be so excited. Your son is coming home.”
Father shot Mother a disapproving glance. Mother looked away, burying an impish smile. He turned to his neighbour’s wife and said, “Yes, very much so.”
Another of the women spoke up. “Mine lives in Fiji. He has a store there. You would be surprised how much he gets paid. Very good salary.”
“Yes,” one of the men added. “Mine living in Canada, so rich. Glad to live there. Says life is perfect there. Wanmei.”
A third man joined the discussion. “We make nothing in this village. We work our entire life. Look at our fingers, look at our skin. The government does nothing here. They go over to Binlang, make it a tourist site. What about us?”
Father was frankly grateful his village had not changed much. Except for nights like this one, he could come home from work, get into bed, and only hear the chirping of the crickets or the clucking of the chickens. One of the women, whose uncovered arms revealed a collage of tattoos, took a different view. “Well, be happy. Most of the children make good money. They live well. They send it to us. What is there to complain about?”
The men and women nodded to each other attentively. Mother took this as an excuse to go to the kitchen and brew more tea, while one of the housewives who had been talking to her reiterated to Father what the other one had said: “You must be so happy.”
Mother was coming in, with the porcelain teapot piping steam into the room, pouring cha into each of the small cups.
The neighbour with dented teeth said, “He will speak good English.”
“But will he still speak good Hlai?” asked another.
“Hah! My son in Canada says they barely speak Mandarin there. How will he remember Hlai?” replied the first.
“Hlai is our language. It is his mother tongue.”
“My son is forgetting.”
Mother had finished serving the tea and interrupted. “Well, we speak in Hlai on the phone, and he is still quite fluent.”
This was not true for two reasons. First, Son barely spoke to them on the phone, and that had been the case for many years. And second, he only spoke Hlai in short sentences and with a lot of English mixed in. He might have done this to give the impression of a new and better life abroad, with friends who were absolutely not from any part of China—to show that he no longer saw his language as a part of his identity. Father didn’t know any English, but he could make out Son’s anglophone accent. The rhythm was too musical, while the words were chopped up. Nevertheless, Son always had to insert some English into whatever he said during their six-or-seven-minute conversations, making it clear that no matter how much Hlai was imprinted into his tongue, it was not the language his mind wanted to produce.
Father wasn’t going to say any of this aloud. He simply sipped his tea, happy to have the pungent punch of the leaves on his tongue. It was opening up his nostrils, giving his brain a bit more air, making him feel like he could converse for that much longer. In the meantime, Mother sat next to the woman with the tattoos. Mother was running her finger along the rim of the cup as if it were in the tea itself, and she told the neighbour, “Son had hard work to do. This I know. But he needs to take his work less seriously. I am glad he is starting to think about his parents.”
The reason Son was coming home was not because he cared about his parents but because he was out of money, yet Father wasn’t going to correct her.
“Be proud,” replied the woman, nodding her head. “That college, it is very prestigious. And a law degree! In English! So difficult.”
“Why does he have a law degree in English?” one of the neighbours asked.
He had a valid point. Son did not in fact study law, but English language, and was very clear about that, but Father remembered how Mother told all of the neighbours around the time that he first got into university that he was going to be a law student, and it had stuck.
Mother folded her arms and chuckled at the ceiling. “My son is a smart boy. Whatever he wants, he does.”
The neighbours were nodding, most likely thinking of their own children. One of the women asked Mother, “Tell us again, what job will he do?”
Good question, Father thought. Work opportunities were plentiful in Sanya, but not in the tourist industry, the only industry in which Son had any prospects. Based on the story Mother was telling, however, in which Son was a successful lawyer rather than an unemployed waiter, it would be near impossible for him to work in China; he would not be educated in Chinese law. Mother kept her fists bumped to her torso and laughed even harder. “Why, he worked in hospitality for some years, so with English under his belt I am sure he could manage a restaurant.”
That was not how the hospitality industry worked, but the guests were too confused to notice. There was an exchange of awkward glances, then one of them found the courage to ask, “I thought Son was working as a lawyer—why did he work in hotels?”
Had Father been asked the question, he would have partially confessed that Son had, in the course of the last nine years, held more than one job. They might have asked more difficult questions, such as how Son sustained his visa shifting around so much, and Father would have admitted that he really didn’t know, as Son didn’t like to talk about it. There would be a silence, but that would be welcome. To these neighbours, who were kind enough at social gatherings but vicious in the privacy of their own homes, he would rather say nothing at all.
But Mother was not Father. Instead she said, “Why, he worked in tourism here, in Sanya, before he moved abroad.”
All of the neighbours nodded and chuckled along. This was in fact a common thing for most people from Hainan to do, so it looked as proper as anything else any of the other boys or girls from here would do. Mother looked triumphant, and she stood, as if she wanted to serve something else other than tea. Then the rice farmer asked, “How many years has your son worked as a lawyer?”
“Eight years,”replied Mother. It only took one question slightly more attuned than the rest to open up the flood of others.
“Eight years?” asked one of the neighbours. “Directly after his undergraduate course? He did not have to go to school again? And, then, how was he working here in tourism?”
“Come to think about it,” another said, “law is very tough abroad. You can’t become a lawyer without law school.”
“Law school is very expensive, isn’t it?”
“Ah, this is why your house still looks like this. You were spending all your money on law school.”
In truth, none of the houses in the village were anything special. Most of the neighbours lived in roadside shacks, or houses of concrete painted pink or left bare, grimly stained by the residue of rain and dust. Nonetheless, they were the ones laughing to each other now, as if they were better off than Mother and Father, even though Father was the only person in this part of the village with a degree. The neighbours started up again about their own children, their own successes, their own good fortune. Mother and Father didn’t speak, but Father said, with one look, This is why I never want them here. I tell you this, and you never listen.
Mother responded with her own look, I know. She went into the kitchen, on the excuse of washing the teacups. She wasn’t coming back, this much Father knew. He wished he could say something, anything, to make the neighbours go away, but the gathering had a life of its own. Father and Mother were going to be forced to talk to the guests, serve them drinks, and listen to their opinions until they left on their own accord. Father took a deep breath. Incense filled his nostrils and widened his eyes. “So, tell me,” he said to the neighbour with the dented teeth, “how expensive is it for your son to live in Canada?”